A free soul and kind-hearted driver in the Himalayas is how many would introduce Soni Chauhan. He belongs to Tandu, a village near Mandi in Himachal Pradesh where he was born and brought up. He is a 35-year-old driver who drives his tempo traveller on the treacherous Himalayan roads.
Driving was his passion from the start and he always wanted to do something where he can do his own thing, not follow the orders of others. Soni left his studies after the tenth standard because he didn’t have much interest in studies. Also, being the eldest child in the family, he wanted to help his father as much as he could.
Soni started earning from the age of 15. He worked as a caretaker in a grocery shop and later did some work in a Dhaba as well, but he never gave up. He used to drive a school bus after that, which gave him the idea to buy his own car and start something in the tourism line. Day by day, he started grinding himself and bought a sumo to take tourists to the places they wanted to go to.
With the travellers, Soni is just like a happy kid who loves to do things from his heart. He loves his family, especially his younger son Arush, who he wants to see becoming a cricketer and playing for India. ‘Soniji’, is what we call him at tlow and he is not someone who gets worried. He always has a smile on his face and will say, “Bhaiji! Kaise ho?”
How and when did you start?
“At the age of 15, I started working because our financial condition was not that sound. I never lost hope of surviving in this world, because I believed in God and he has helped me through my worst time. I used to work in a grocery shop as a caretaker and helper. At that time, I only earned Rs 300 but I happily accepted it,” he said.
When he turned 18, Soni made his driving licence because he was crazy about driving. “I used to go with my friend to Spiti Valley to get peas and potatoes from there. I would come back the next morning. That’s how I started to learn the terrain. The training has helped me a lot to get confidence to drive a vehicle here,” he said.
After getting the license, Soni started driving a school bus around Mandi. It was a good experience of driving such a huge vehicle in a hilly area, he feels. By doing this for some time, he had enough money to start his own tourist vehicle business.
“Driving never bores me, because every time the feel is different. I covered the whole of Himachal Pradesh in three months and I was getting a good income which was also helping my family. From the first trip, I knew that I’m not gonna drive the sumo for a long time. I had an idea to buy a bigger vehicle so more tourists can fit in,” he said.
Soni started saving money. It took him three years to get enough money to buy a new tempo traveller but he says he never asked anyone for money. “I was never that kind of person. Around 2012, I bought my tempo traveller and it was a proud moment for all of us especially my wife. I am still driving this tempo traveller and I take care of this vehicle more than I do of my children. It is that special to me. Never forget those things which have helped you grow,” he said.
How long have you been associated with tlow?
“I met Sherwin as a third-party because there was one guy who was in the middle of the two of us. Sherwin used to call him for drivers and he used to send me with my sumo at that time. Later, after four or five trips with tlow, Sherwin asks me how much I get from him and I told him the amount. We got to know that he was just charging both of us for no reason. So later, Sherwin used to directly call me for the trip and I used to get the vehicle for him. So it made our calculations much clearer and honest. It has been five years since I’m working with tlow. I never think of this as another company, I feel like it’s my brand and should make it better day by day. I loved the idea of giving an experience to people who work like dogs in the cities for God knows how many hours. I got many friends from tlow. Sherwin and I share a good bonding with each other. I would love to work with tlow as long as I can drive this tempo,” he said.
Has tourism helped you?
“Yes, it has. Today, tourism encourages people to go out more and see new places. Whenever, I used to go out with travellers, I used to tell them about the place and talk to them about the outside world because I have never been to the southern side of our country. I get to know their culture and belief which makes me realise how colourful India is. I learnt many things from travellers because every traveller has a new story or experience to share,” he said.
Earlier, Himachal Pradesh was famous for Manali and Kullu, so there was never a shortage of tourists here, feels Soni. “In fact in the past two or three years, the tourism industry over here has increased tremendously. Local residents have started guest houses in their homes only. Many people have started giving their cars as taxis to tourists. People are earning so much and they are happy because I feel, God takes care of this place,” he said.
Have you seen any climatic changes in the place?
“The climate has been constantly changing and the weather is becoming more unpredictable day by day. It takes only some minutes for the weather to change in the mountains. Now this year, the snow has arrived very early so it’s definitely going to be really cold. I see the days are getting hotter because people are cutting trees for their business purposes which is affecting our ecosystem and water,” he said.
Soni feels the Beas calamity was an example of what could happen but people are not trying to understand. “They litter in the mountains and ask for clean places to stay. I personally feel cleanliness makes more sense to us than littering around. People should start planting more trees and should consume a limited amount of water because if they waste water, they are going to suffer a lot. A simple ideology I believe in is that don’t harm nature in any way or else it will harm you someday,” he said, signing off.
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